The spike in the number of measles cases in the United States is finally garnering the attention it deserves, as the number of new illnesses continues to accelerate. The number of cases in the United States now stands at more than 750, the highest number recorded in a year since the disease was declared eliminated in this country in 2000.
Public health authorities are justifiably concerned. Measles can cause permanent health deficits, and even death. Moreover, research by a multinational group of academics indicates that a measles infection impairs the immune system, reducing resistance to other pathogens for months or even years.
Anyone who is active on social media is aware that there is a great deal of passionate but ill-founded opposition to vaccination in general, including to the mumps-measles-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Such criticism of and resistance to MMR and other vaccines persists, and may even be increasing, in spite of overwhelming evidence of their safety and efficacy.
How could that be? Physicians and the public health establishment are virtually unanimous in aggressively promoting vaccination. Well, the source of much of the misinformation about vaccines comes from an unobvious source: Russia's propaganda apparatus, which is causing palpable harm to Americans and citizens of other Western countries.
Some background is necessary. A U.S. Senate-commissioned analysis by a cybersecurity firm released on Dec. 17 found that Russia's infamous troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, is conducting "modern information warfare." Renee DiResta, the research director of the firm, described the IRA's battle plan as a "cross-platform attack that made use of numerous features on each social network and that spanned the entire social ecosystem."
Russia's health-related disinformation and propaganda campaigns are nothing new. In the 1980s the Soviet Union concocted an elaborate disinformation scheme to blame the appearance of the HIV virus and AIDS on U.S. military research. They first planted the story in a sympathetic Indian newspaper and then followed it up with other fake stories that cited the initial report.
Today, TV "news channel" RT (formerly Russia Today), which has its roots in Pravda, the Kremlin's English-language propaganda arm, is an important mouthpiece for Russia President Vladimir Putin's agenda.
Recall that a report from the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence implicated RT in Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential election. It found that the network uses the Internet and social media to conduct "strategic messaging for the Russian government" and that its programming aims "at undermining viewers' trust of U.S. democratic procedures" and U.S.-dominant technologies. For example, according to the DNI's' report, RT became a platform to push anti-fracking disinformation in order to damage the American shale industry.
A study by academics published last year in the American Journal of Public Health found that thousands of Russian social media accounts spread anti-vaccine messaging. From the examination of almost two million tweets posted between 2014 and 2017, the researchers found that Russian troll accounts were significantly more likely to tweet about vaccination than were Twitter users generally. They noted that Russian tweets like "Apparently only the elite get 'clean' #vaccines. And what do we, normal ppl, get?!" seem intended to exacerbate socioeconomic tensions in the United States.
Interestingly, the Russian disinformation accounts also occasionally promulgated pro-vaccine messages, to give the illusion of genuine controversy, attempting to exploit a wedge issue and to sow social discord, erode trust in public health institutions, and elicit mistrust of pharmaceutical companies.
Further evidence of Russia's intentions is provided by the September 2017 tweets DiResta discovered from Russian trolls that connect vaccine denial to U.S. racial divides: "Diseases Expert Calls for White Genocide Since Most Vaccine Deniers are White." She believes the Russians' motive is "opportunism — opportunistically amplifying controversial topics," but the bottom line is that Russian agitprop campaigns seek to stoke controversy over vaccination to divide and sicken Americans.
Genetic engineering in agriculture also contains gratuitous controversy and that holds intense interest for the Russians. The Russian propaganda machine works closely with the well-financed, U.S.-based anti-genetic engineering movement. Examples of their collaborations with Russia on disseminating propaganda are described here and here. USRTK, the most aggressive of the anti-genetic engineering nongovernmental organizations, and RT have the same objective: to undermine American science and technology for financial gain.
More direct evidence of a Russian connection to anti-technology trolling in the United States can be found in a bizarre 2017 story claiming that first lady Melania Trump banned genetically engineered foods from the White House and favors organic products. Much of the article, including some of the quotes attributed to the first lady, are cribbed verbatim from a 2010 article in Yes! Magazine that had nothing whatever to do with her.
It ran on Your News Wire, another fake news source linked to Russia. The author of the article, "Baxter Dmitry," has penned articles that allege that, among other things, "Sweden Bans Mandatory Vaccinations Over 'Serious Health Concerns'" (untrue, but there's the vaccine connection again), and the arrest for "treason" of a "former Hillary Clinton employee" (untrue).
He also posted on Facebook that Mrs. Trump "has credited the healing and nurturing properties of nature for her good health, and urged Americans to stop leaning so heavily on Big Pharma to provide 'magic potions' to cure their ills" (untrue).
If the involvement of Russia and its notorious troll factories in disparaging U.S. biotechnology seems a stretch, consider the study by two Iowa State University researchers, who looked at the source of articles containing the word "GMO" (genetically modified organism) and how genetic engineering was portrayed. They found that Russia's English-language propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik produced more articles containing "GMO" than did five other major news organizations — Huffington Post, Fox News, CNN, Breitbart News, and MSNBC — combined.
The two Russian outlets accounted for more than half of all the GMO-related articles among the seven sites (RT, 34 percent; Sputnik, 19 percent). "RT and Sputnik overwhelmingly portrayed genetic modification in a negative light," the researchers wrote. "Among U.S. news organizations, the left-leaning Huffington Post produced the most 'anti' articles, followed by CNN. Fox News produced the most neutral or mixed coverage of GMOs."
The researchers also found that RT published "nearly all articles in which the term GMO appeared as 'click bait.'"
The actions of the Russians and their U.S.-based "useful idiots" injure and kill Americans, promote discord, sow mistrust of U.S.-dominant industries, and damage our productivity. Americans need to be aware that evil regimes seek to destroy their trust in U.S. officials, research, and industry, as well as damage their children's health. These people do not have your children's best interests at heart, and their information shouldn't be trusted.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was formerly a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.